People, particularly on the industry side, often talk about the benefits of integrating IT systems: the nirvana of so-called end-to-end business processes. Such integration enables chief information officers and IT directors to drive through business process optimisation projects and give business managers the ability to look at customers, suppliers and all manner of business metrics from a single, comprehensive dashboard.
Yet, IT decision-makers in the private and public sector appear to be driving less IT integration in their organisations than in 2006. Metrics to measure return on investment of integration are used significantly less in 2008, compared with two years ago. Furthermore, due to a lack of management support, IT integration can be seen as an obstacle to meeting business expectations.
IT integration cooling down
An independent study for Intersystems/Computer Weekly run by Reed Business Insight has discovered that integration is less of a priority than previously.
In the survey of more than 450 IT decision-makers, 36% said their integration strategy is driven from the company board down 27% said the strategy is driven by the IT department and 31% reported that integrations are assessed on an ad hoc basis.
Although there was little change in organisations' approach to IT integration in terms of who makes the decisions, the survey found big differences in the perceived business benefits of IT integration compared with 2006 and measurements of these benefits.
In 2006, improving a business's competitive edge was the biggest business benefit of integration (67%), while today, improving consistency of service (72%) is regarded as the main benefit. Larger companies are more likely to name a reduction in transaction costs (71%) and helping the organisation to meet regulatory compliance (61%) as a benefit of IT integration, while in 2006, regulatory compliance was nominated by 52% of IT decision-makers.
Views on technical benefits of IT integration have also changed in the past two years. In 2006, 67% of IT decision-makers considered the consolidation of systems as the main technical benefit. Today, the ability to rapidly adapt IT to changes in the business is seen as the top technical benefit (70%), followed by consolidation (62%).
The survey also assessed how much resistance respondents encountered when trying to introduce the idea of IT integration. Reasons given for viewing IT integration as an obstacle to meeting business expectations included a lack of management support (42%), followed by insufficient user interest (39%) and IT and business units communicating ineffectively (38%).
Important factors in selecting IT integration tools among the sample were choosing the reference customers, a preferred list of suppliers and existing skills.
Lack of business imperatives
The problem, according to Bola Rotibi, principal analyst at MWD Advisors, is that board-level executives simply do not understand IT integration. "Either the business imperative has not been explained or board members do not believe it is important," she says.
The business may have had a bad experience of IT integration in the past, or it may lack thought leadership.
It might seem obvious, but how many IT decision-makers can clearly link IT integration projects to measurable business benefits? Worryingly, the survey showed that 33% of IT decision-makers are not measuring business benefits of IT integration. This is a huge increase compared with 2006, when only 5% said they had no metrics.
In Rotibi's experience, the disillusion among business heads is probably a result of the industry frenzy around new integration techniques such as service oriented architecture (SOA) and a failure of previous integration projects to meet business expectations.
"Everyone seems to latch onto the latest buzzword. Just because everyone else is doing SOA projects, we should have it," says Rotibi.
She recommends that IT decision-makers take a long hard look at whether the latest integration technologies can make a difference to the business. For instance, "SOA is transformation and relies on organisations thinking in a different way, but the organisation may not be culturally aligned for SOA."
SOA on the shelf
SOA is the latest industry approach to IT integration. According to analyst Gartner, the worldwide application, infrastructure and middleware (AIM) software market revenue grew to £7bn in 2007 - an increase of 12.9% on the previous year. Gartner has found that growth has been driven by strong demand for products that support SOA and process-centric applications.
However, in spite of the noise coming from the IT industry, only 18% of IT decision-makers in the Intersystems/Computer Weekly survey have implemented or are implementing SOA. Just less than a fifth said SOA remains merely a concept in their companies and a further one in seven intend to implement SOA projects within two years. Significantly fewer respondents in 2008 are likely to implement SOA than in 2006. Almost a third have no intention of implementing SOA. However, in larger companies, about a third are implementing SOA, although this is significantly less than in 2006.
This may seem puzzling, but the findings reflect research from analyst group Freeform Dynamics.
"SOA is not a product, in spite of what the industry says," says Tony Lock, programme director at Freeform Dynamics. "It is a philosophy. Not many people say they are doing SOA, but when we drill down, we have found that people are practising SOA."
SOA is regarded as a large-scale transformational project involving people, processes and technology. It is as much a way of thinking, an approach to IT projects, as the middleware products that allow users to build SOAs.
Getting board-level buy-in
Although an enterprise-wide SOA may indeed offer major business improvements - if it succeeds - smaller projects are easier to manage and more likely to win board approval. They also have a quicker return on investment. Rotibi suggests that IT decision-makers speak to users and business managers about their day-to-day pain points and work on integration projects to reduce these. This way, it is easier to measure before and after to assess whether the project has had a net benefit to the organisation.
If user feedback is positive and there is a measured business benefit, then the IT decision-maker can demonstrate success to the board, and perhaps put forward a strong case for further IT integration funding. On the other hand, if it is a failure in terms of the expected user benefits compared with the measured results, then at least the IT decision-maker can say the project did not cost very much.
A vision statement is the starting point on an any IT integration project. In his Service Architecture blog, Steve Jones, head of SOA for global outsourcing at Capgemini and author of Enterprise SOA Adoption Strategies, recommends that IT decision-makers embarking on an SOA project keep their project vision short.
"Some people seem to think that the vision should be a document that includes all the detail around the business case, outline plan and other elements. For me that is the kick-off document and it is something that has a life expectancy of only about three weeks when everyone is on board and you are into the detail. The vision for me is something very clear that says, what we are going to achieve for the business, how will we measure success and what is important to delivery?"
For his own projects, Jones conducts a "look back" exercise to help him to identify the benefits and possible challenges. "I imagine that the project has finished successfully and what people [think is brilliant] about the project I also think about the [challenges] we had to overcome."
The Intersystems/Computer Weekly survey has found that IT integration and SOA are not getting enough board-level attention. IT decision-makers need to take the lead and speak to the board about the benefits of integration and SOA, using the language of the business.
Measuring before and after is essential. As Rotibi says, "Metrics may be hard and harsh they may require soul searching. But if you want to get better, you have to look at everything, warts and all. You have to know where you stand, before you can make the changes and quantify the benefits."